Eight-year study casts serious doubt on future food security

An extensive study designed to simulate the growing conditions of the future has cast significant doubt on widely held assumptions about the impact of climate change on food production, suggesting that we will face significant crop failures far sooner than previously thought.

The study, which is published today in the journal Nature Plants, saw researchers from the University of Illinois conduct an eight year-long study of soybeans that were grown outdoors in a carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.  This was designed to mimic the higher atmospheric CO₂ concentrations that we are projected to experience by 2050.

It had been thought that the increased levels of CO₂ would balance future water shortages, by prompting the plans to reduce the size of the pores in their leaves and so reducing gaseous exchange with the atmosphere. This would reduce the amount of water the plants needed from the soil, resulting in crops that were only minimally affected by climate change.

“If you read the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and if you read the scientific literature on the subject for the last 30 years, the concluding statement is nearly always that elevated carbon dioxide will ameliorate drought stress in crops,” explained lead author Andrew Leakey, an associate professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois.

However, the study found a flaw in that premise, in that it only works in wetter growing seasons.

“[The theory] was consistent with what we saw with our own experiments the first four years, the relatively wet years,” added Leakey. “But when the growing seasons were hot and dry, that pattern broke down.”

The Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment facility, which allowed researchers to simulate the CO₂-rich environment of 2050. Image courtesy of Don Hamerman

The Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment facility, which allowed researchers to simulate the CO₂-rich environment of 2050. Image courtesy of Don Hamerman

The researchers created the CO₂-rich environment in real farm fields using a technology known as the Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment Facility. This featured sensors that that can measure wind speed and direction, prompting the regulated release of gases to simulate higher concentrations of CO₂.

This allowed the researchers to determine that plants grown in a hot, dry CO₂-rich environment needed more water than plants growing under the same conditions but with current atmospheric CO₂ levels; the opposite of what previous research had suggested.

“All of the model predictions up to this point were assuming that in 2050, elevated CO₂ was going to give us a 15% increase in yield over what we had at the beginning of this century,” Leakey said. “And what we’re seeing is that as it gets hotter and drier, that number diminishes to zero. No gain.

“What we think is happening is that early in the growing season, when the plant has enough water, it’s able to photosynthesize more as a result of the higher CO2 levels. It’s got more sugars to play with, it grows more, it creates all this extra leaf area. But when it gets dry, the plant has overextended itself, so later in the season it’s now using more water.”

soybean-crop

The research has significant implications for the management of food security in the future, with soybeans being the fourth biggest food crop in the world by area harvested.

In addition to providing a valuable source of protein for nonmeat eaters, they are used in a wide array of foods, oils and sauces, particularly in East Asia where the crop has formed a significant part of the diet since at least 7,000 BC.

Soybeans are also used extensively for livestock feed, making their importance for food security even greater.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.